Queen’s Speech — Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:21 pm on 14th May 2013.

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Photo of Lord Puttnam Lord Puttnam Labour 5:21 pm, 14th May 2013

My Lords, I associate myself with those who have congratulated the right reverend Prelate and the noble Lords, Lord Berkeley and Lord Ridley, on their maiden speeches. I can still remember the cold sweat pouring down my neck prior to my maiden speech. It will never feel quite as bad again.

I also associate myself with what the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, said about the speed with which the royal charter implementing some of the Leveson proposals is to be brought in. I cannot have been the only person in your Lordships’ House who was struck by the very respectful coverage given to the State Opening of Parliament last week by the same newspapers that are attempting to face down Parliament while we attempt to impose some form of order.

I am not going to talk about the creative industries because I know that the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, who follows me, will do it more ably than I can, and I associate myself entirely with his concerns. I am going to stick with education simply because if one looks at the list of concerns in the Queen’s Speech it is clear that every one of them is connected in one way or another to a successful education.

I have now worked in this field for 20 years, and the one absolute truism is that no system of education can ever be better than the quality of its teachers. That is true the world over. Therefore the statement in the Queen’s Speech:

“Measures will be taken to improve the quality of education for young people”,

fills me with delight. Last Saturday, I had the honour of giving the commencement address to the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. I was struck by the fact that whereas in the UK only between 6% and 7% of teachers have a second degree, over 80% of American teachers have master’s degrees. That is quite extraordinary. It does not mean that the American education system is in any way perfect, but it shows a commitment by their learning profession to the concept of learning. We have not reached that point. At Question Time today, the noble Lord, Lord Freud, complimented Finland, quite rightly, on being best in class in early years, in reduction in child poverty and in the quality of its education system. The answer is very simple: it has the best qualified and best trained teachers and educators in the world, and it is reaping the rewards it deserves.

The Queen’s Speech also stated that the Government intend to work to promote,

“a fairer society that rewards people who work hard”.

Having visited more than 400 schools in the past 15 years, I can assure noble Lords that no one in this country works harder than the nation’s teachers, but in order to do so, they need to be encouraged. In 1997, when I went to work for the Government, I encountered a—to put it politely—demoralised workforce. I was quite shocked by the state of the staff rooms and the general attitude of teachers, in many cases to each other. I genuinely believe—this is not a party-political point—that over a period of 10 years things significantly improved. Therefore, it grieves me to have to report, as I continue to go around schools and speak at education conferences, that the situation in the past year is as bad in terms of demoralisation as the situation that I encountered in 1997, if not worse. It is very bad indeed. The idea that the Government’s aspirations for education can somehow be achieved with a demoralised workforce that does not believe it is being led at all is pure fantasy.

I was very struck yesterday by the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, who is not in her place. She said something particularly important, which was:

“We must not create a two-tier society but aspire to a universality of digital skills. We must make sure that the potential of all our citizens is unlocked”.—[Hansard, 13/5/13; col. 160.]

I cannot say that the way things are going at present we are unlocking the potential or the skills of our young people, and it worries me greatly.

While I was in the United States at the weekend, I turned on the television and watched Bill Gates being interviewed on CBS’s “60 Minutes”. He was talking about the late Steve Jobs. I jotted down what he said. He said:

“When he was sick I was able to spend time with him. We talked about what we’d learned—about families, everything. He was not being melancholy, it was very forward-looking, saying that we haven't really improved education with technology”.

They were entirely right, but the important thing is that the fault lies not with technology but with the extraordinary way in which we have not taken advantage of the opportunities available to us.

I have the pleasure of chairing the Times Educational Supplement advisory board, along with the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Bolton, and my noble friends Lord Adonis and Lord Knight. It is a marvellous board to sit on. I would like to trot out a few statistics. I have mentioned them in Committee but I am not sure that they were fully understood. It is not a lack of ambition that the nation’s teachers are suffering from; they are ambitious to do better for themselves and for their pupils. At the TES we have a social media site. It is called TES Connect and it is free. The 100 million teacher downloads last year from that site indicate that teachers want better lesson plans. On one day, 8 January this year, there were 669,000 downloads by teachers looking for better lesson plans and ideas to bring to their classrooms. This year we anticipate 130 million teacher downloads. In addition, 600,000 teaching assets have been uploaded, 71% by teachers in Britain. This is a very active community that is looking for leadership, catalysation and someone to take advantage of its ambitions to improve.

Frankly, the teachers of this country are not being led. The Secretary of State believes that he has got it right, but he has to understand that no improvements to education in Britain will occur unless the teaching profession goes with him. That takes time, affection, understanding and time spent with the profession. That simply is not happening.

A very influential report, entitled An Avalanche is Coming, came out a month ago. To my absolute delight, it quoted me on the cover. I spoke at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology exactly a year ago and said that,

“by my reading, should we fail to radically change our approach to education, the same cohort we’re attempting to ‘protect’ could find their entire future is scuttled by our timidity”— and, I would add, by our lack of courage and our lack of imagination.

Unless we get education right, irrespective of cost, everything else we do in this Chamber will fail. That is one certainty. We have to get it right, and to get it right requires leadership. At present that leadership, for the teachers of this country, is not forthcoming.